Rock Roundup

The Legacy of Frank Zappa

Zappa Fest celebrates his music. And Trampled by Turtles plays Riverside on New Year’s Eve.

By - Dec 29th, 2014 11:03 am
Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

Top Show: Zappa Fest at Club Garibaldi, Saturday, January 3

A little over 21 years after Frank Zappa died, his musical achievements remain difficult to quantify. To give an example: one of his greatest achievements for music was to argue (in print, on TV, and, in 1985, before a Senate committee) against labeling records as if they were obscene:

With music, his compositional and instrumental alacrity did help him move from a sneering pastiche of psychedelic whimsy—

—to an intelligent deconstruction (in this instance, performed in 2010) of the possibilities of original explorations near the avant-garde end of the classical style—

—with  plenty of serious jokes and lighthearted solemnity, plus doo-wop and jazz, giving some definition to creativity that acknowledged few boundaries and classifications.

As much as Zappa acted as if he were jester to both mainstream stuffiness and counter cultural pretensions, he learned, from disputes with record companies and back-and-forth lawsuits with (former) managers, to be humorless about getting and retaining control over his work.

He therefore took care, when he could, with reissues and compilations put out during his lifetime; his widow, Gail, has done the same with more reissues and posthumous material.

(In 1996, there was even a three-CD unveiling of Lather, a set of recordings that Zappa was said to have originally intended to be a four-LP box circa 1977 until his label balked and he spread the material around and across four separate albums.)

The 2015 iteration of the annual Zappa Fest in Milwaukee means to reflect Zappa’s artistic and temperamental variousness with a host of acts that will probably lean more toward the man’s freak-outs with the Mothers of Invention bands than toward his classical gas. The Fest would need more than one night, anyway, to get close to encompassing Zappa.


Tuesday, December 30: Local H at Shank Hall

As early as 1996, two albums into the career of Local H, lead singer and guitarist Scott Lucas had wearied of addressing questions about how, through technology and moxie, his band functioned as a duo. Good thing Local H didn’t come along at the same time as Black Keys, White Stripes et al.

Instead, the twosome emerged during Nirvana’s initial era of influence, plying small-town, Midwestern bitterness and blending mainstream rock with the indie elements. Lucas and his latest drummer, Ryan Harding, are currently testing new songs and raising funds for the next Local H record.

On this evidence, the record, like most Local H performances, will be melodic, loud, and angry:


Wednesday, December 31: Trampled by Turtles, Riverside Theater

With its emphasis on instruments drawn from the time before amplifiers, its refusal of drums, and its fondness for close harmonies, bluegrass doesn’t have to stretch to evoke the frost-rimed silences and huddled human warmth of bleak midwinter nights.

Trampled by Turtles does stretch the form with rock ‘n’ roll dynamics and a corollary crossover potential that Nickel Creek fans could appreciate. Ten years after the Duluth, Minnesota band’s first album, Songs From a Ghost Town, its most recent, Wild Animals, will provide the basis for a thoughtful transition from old year to new.


Wednesday, December 31: Brew City Bass NYE Fest with Manic Focus at Miramar Theatre

Electronic-dance-music detractors strike an overfamiliar note when they decry the soullessness of computerized sounds…but they do not always strike that note in error. Clubs and festivals have become crowded with EDM “artistes” who are button-pushing mountebanks relying more on their laptops than their instincts.

DJ and producer John “JmaC” McCarten tries not to be like that with the projects under his Manic Focus moniker. When he samples classic and obscure soul and R&B records, he’s less a hipster than a real fan connecting what they (and their singers) did and what he does. This year’s Cerebral Eclipse LP is almost as much about groove as about booty beats.


Saturday, January 3: Yonat Mayer at Shank Hall

Described by some sources as a psychotherapist as well as a singer-songwriter, Yonat Mayer is also a Milwaukee native. She lives in Oakland now and has, since 2011, established her bona fides as a musician in the Bay Area, but the pull of the hometown can be particularly strong this time of year.

Mayer courts the image and mystique of the peripatetic troubadour looking for nourishment and sunshine wherever she might briefly plant her roots. Her music, a light-infused mix of modern folk and pop-leaning blues, is warm and accessible. She’s aiming to have a new album, her third, out in 2015, so she’s likely to test it where she once was a local.

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